It began simply enough. A group of students wanted to put on a show—in the cafeteria. Now, forty years later, Montgomery College’s Summer Dinner Theatre program is thriving—delighting audiences and preparing students for careers in the performing arts.
“We got a rhythm and the creativity seemed to grow,” says Susan Hoffman, who served as the artistic director for every season until her retirement two years ago.
Starting in May, each night the Theater Arts Building on the Rockville Campus is abuzz. Seventy to 80 students work on the performance and technical aspects for two shows, earning college credit and participating in master classes with top artists from the DC area. In addition, 15 students are hired as interns.
“It is very hands on,” says Hoffman. “Stage managers manage, set designers draft and paint, costume designers draw and sew. It is the closest thing to working in summer stock. You are not just following a professional around; you are doing it!”
The hands-on system works for performers and technicians alike. Priscilla Cuellar (class of 2004) won a prestigious Helen Hayes Award in 2013 for her performance in Legally Blonde at Toby’s Dinner Theatre. Her classmate, Brad Nacht, performed on Broadway. Matt Nielson won multiple Helen Hayes awards for sound design and is nationally recognized for his work in television and film.
Tony Award nominee Brad Oscar says his summers at Montgomery College were invaluable to his theatrical education. “It was thrilling to come together with others of a similar age and passion, and the level of professionalism displayed by all was always inspiring,” Oscar says.
This summer, theater major David Singleton is playing Gideon in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, and like the alumni before him, says the long hours are worth it. “I’ve learned a lot of really great lessons this summer, but I think the one that has stuck with me is that it’s important, as a performer, to listen to your body. And everyone should know that Summer Dinner Theatre will bring so many remarkable people into their life. They should also know that it’s a huge commitment that is more than worth it!”
That remarkable group of people Singleton refers to includes an army of talented technicians behind the scenes, including choreographers; music directors; scenic, costume, lighting, sound and property designers; carpenters and electricians; sound and light board operators; caterers; and many more.
“Through coming together as a community we can create amazing things,” says Pauline Grossman, artistic director.
Even if things don’t go as planned. That’s what happened on June 29, 2012, when a violent wind storm toppled power lines and created dangerous conditions on the roads all around the Rockville Campus.
“We were stuck in the theatre with a packed house of patrons, the cast, crew, and orchestra. No one was allowed to leave,” Grossman remembers. “So what did we do? We pulled the piano out, stood in the back of the house with huge flashlights pointing at the stage and kept going with the show.”
When it was safe to go home, Hoffman remembers students walking patrons to their cars since the campus was without lights. Both she and Grossman agree this is what the program is all about: collaboration and community.
There are still a few performances left for Seven Brides for Seven Brothers this summer, and Grossman says the show is “full of songs you will want to sing along to and dances that will make you tap your feet.” Visit Summer Dinner Theatre online for ticket information.